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Does working from home encourage discrimination?

Where there’s a bubble, there tends to be bias. And when we work from home, we can distance ourselves from others who are “not like us”. So for all the merits, the working from home movement has brought, there are dark sides to consider too.

Is discrimination on the rise in home working?

The sudden increase in working from home has been a mixed blessing for some, but not all, employees in America. 

Reduced commutes have left some with extra time and money — plus a sense of newfound freedom. Others are working in inadequate spaces, have difficulty creating appropriate boundaries, and now need to juggle home responsibilities with work ones 12 hours a day.

But something we may not have seen coming from the move to homework? An increase in discrimination. It makes sense, though. Workplaces, even those that are not specifically focusing on diversity, are frequently more diverse than employees’ social circles. A recent British study found that the unemployed were 37% more likely to have a friendship group consisting entirely of their own ethnicity.

“Safe” at home, our prejudices are rarely challenged

The best defense against discrimination is personal contact with those who represent different characteristics than our own. Great workplaces provide an environment to get to know a diverse group of people — to understand their perspective and to value their insights and contributions. 

In the UK, 76% of offices are defined as “ethnically diverse”. So the report, shared by the British Broadcasting Corporation, concluded that without efforts being made to replace office-based contact “opportunities for social mixing between different religious and ethnic groups will be greatly reduced”.

Working from home is a window into our world, and that leaves us vulnerable to discrimination

One of the difficulties of home working is that aspects of employees’ lives that would normally be private can accidentally become public. These can range from characteristics such as sexuality or religion to economic status and personal preferences.

Take, for example, an employee dialing into a video call with a big sports team poster behind them. Fans of rival sports teams could easily get their backs up — seeing that colleague as “other” in a way they hadn’t before. 

Now imagine if that sports poster is a Pride flag. Or religious artwork.

There’s also the risk that racial stereotypes can influence the way personal information about staff is interpreted. For example, stereotypes about black women typically being single mothers could lead some colleagues to react negatively towards a black staff member being interrupted by a child.

Attempting to create clear boundaries in a work environment to allow productive remote working is difficult for everyone. But it’s important to recognize the ways in which some groups may find it especially challenging.

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Combating cliqueness in remote organizations

Will people working from home revert to single-ethnicity “isolated silos”? It’s possible, if we don’t act now to stop it.

As HR managers, we must continue to promote and facilitate diversity throughout our organizations. This means making space for personal contact between team members — beyond their natural cliques — and ensuring that minority groups are not disadvantaged as a result of working from home.

Engagement is key to inclusivity. In another blog post, ‘Inclusive Employee Engagement Ideas For Remote Teams’ we shared ways to keep staff feeling connected to the values of your organization when working from home. But combating inter-team discrimination requires additional steps.

Social connection transcends bias and discrimination

Informal connections are essential to forming relationship bonds. Having the opportunity to drop in and out of conversations with colleagues allows friendships and understanding to develop without undue pressure.  

So how do we get that in a work-from-home set-up? Virtual ‘water coolers’ can help — acting as an (online) space where staff can drop in for a quick chat periodically. It’s essential that these offerings are entirely voluntary, though.

“It’s a delicate balancing act — providing a space in which all employees can express themselves authentically, while also offering privacy and respect to those who do not wish to disclose additional information about themselves.

We should also commit to team-wide social events held virtually, too. If colleagues will have less face time with each other when working remotely, we need to make dedicated time slots for both formal and informal catch-ups.

Of course, campaign for in-person meet-ups wherever possible as well. Seeing colleagues as more than pixels on a screen will work wonders, even if it’s only once or twice a year.

Diversity and Inclusion training is just as important when WFH — if not more

Chances are you had some sort of D&I initiative in place while you were office-based. 

Possibly not those commitments have taken a backseat. 

It’s understandable — there are lots to manage when your teams move to be remote. But take a moment to consider how this comes across to your staff. If employees being physically apart leads to an easing of D&I efforts, you’re telling your staff that these values are optional. That an inclusive workforce is not a business ‘essential’.

“Make it clear that you’re not simply riding out the storm.”

One of the key phrases from 2020 has been the idea of a “new normal”. Creating a sense of normality around our current work practices helps staff to feel secure and confident in their ability to face a deeply uncertain and challenging time. This means making sure that we include as much of our normal HR procedures as we can. 

Reach out to staff and be proactive. Looking for ways to address potential team-building problems. Explore the opportunities for satellite offices, with in-person sub-teams — however small. Make it clear that you’re not simply riding out the storm.

Above all else: don’t shy away

It’s a delicate balancing act — providing a space in which all employees can express themselves authentically, while also offering privacy and respect to those who do not wish to disclose additional information about themselves.

It’s the same when working from home as working from anywhere else. And so the same management rules apply: confront issues, challenge bias when you see it, keep an open forum, and continue to ask for feedback.

Yes, there’s a wide variety of different options and interventions available to us as HR managers. But they all have the same goal: to create a culture in which all our staff experience psychological safety in the workplace. 

As always, the first step is to make sure that you keep talking with, and listening to, your teams.

And then move forward from there.

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